DIY Joe: Coffee Tree Lessons Learned

Why pay for fancy imported coffee when you can grow your own exotic cup at home.

Well, for starters, you might have to wait 20 years for the first sip, which is the easy part. But I wasn’t calculating when my relationship with a coffee tree began in the late 1990s.

I was in Palm Beach County, Florida to do a magazine article about an extension agent, Gene Joyner, who had turned a barren sandy lot beside his house into a thirst-quenching forest of tropical fruit trees. I never wanted to leave.

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CORNER COFFEE: A coffee tree potted as a 5-inch seedling in the late 1990s now stretches nearly 6 feet. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

At the end of my tour, he tugged a 5-inch coffee tree seedling out of the ground. He tucked the lustrous stem of emerald leaves into a plastic baggie for me.

I took my souvenir home to Connecticut and potted it. The tree thrived, defying the fate of short-lived novelty. It eventually became a bushy six-footer and substantial winter houseplant that moved with me to South Carolina and then to Washington, D.C.

At unpredictable times along the way, the tree bloomed, striking itself with brilliant white flowers bearing a unique and subtle scent. Bright maroon cherries followed with a slightly sour, wild taste.

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JAVA STAR: Blossoms appear in clusters on the branch of the coffee tree. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

It was always just a family joke that the tree might yield an our-house brand. This year, though, the flush of cherries was sufficient to tempt me down that Joe road.

I gathered a few handfuls and set about extracting the precious inner bean from the pulp and caramel-colored husk. Pinching flesh off the fresher cherries with my fingers proved laborious and ineffective. Using pliers on the nearly black and desiccated cherries was plenty tedious but more effective.


CHERRY RIPE: Coffee tree fruit appears, hiding the bean inside. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Stubbornly, I accumulated a mounded palm’s worth of the grooved gray-green nuggets. I fired up a skillet and cooked the beans until they turned dark brown and showed a sheen of oil.

A whir of the beans in an electric grinder produced exciting hints of an authentic coffee aroma. Then I French-pressed a steaming cup of my signature roast.

To call it a hot mud bath would be too harsh. It was coffee, undeniably excessive in bitter and burnt flavor “notes” but proof of the possible. I’m going to keep the tree. But in deference to fair trade, at least for the next 20 years, it will be strictly as an ornamental.


BEAN EXTRACTION: Separating the coffee bean from its tight covering presents a tedious challenge.

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SIGNATURE ROAST: A one-off blend of homegrown coffee is ready for the grinder. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

© 2017 John A. Bray
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